LAS VEGAS, NEVADA | Go away for a few months and you don’t recognize the place. Go away for a few years and you might as well be in a different country.
If what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas then memories of your behavior could be the most permanent things in town. Every visit there’s an addition to the skyline. The Las Vegas Strip, once an intimate row of casino hotels straight out of a Joe Pesci movie, now could be mistaken for Doha, Abu Dhabi or any other gleaming desert city.
Two hundred yards off the Strip, behind a shiny 45-story hotel with a waterfall terrace and one of the best steakhouses in the western United States, sits a new golf course that pops on all fronts.
The Wynn Golf Club is the reincarnation of the course of the same name that closed down a few years ago, which was, itself, a reimagining of the old Desert Inn Golf and Country Club, which hosted both the PGA and LPGA tours and was a playground for Dean Martin, Frank Sinatra, Bob Hope, Buddy Hackett and a slew of other celebrities who played Vegas when Bugsy Siegel’s fingerprints could still be found on the cigarette machines.
If you visited Vegas in those golden days, the Desert Inn looked like a glass water bottle, squatty and cylindrical, jutting out of the sand in what was then the middle of nowhere. Sure, it was only a mile and a half from the Flamingo and Caesars Palace, but you weren’t surprised to see coyotes behind the tee boxes of the golf course. Even in the days when the PGA Tour held its Tournament of Champions there (1953-1966) and the LPGA put on the Desert Inn Classic in the 1970s (JoAnne Carner and Sandra Palmer both won that one), the course was an oasis in the middle of a rattlesnake habitat.
Now, a monorail runs along a couple of holes on the front nine and the 16th tee sits next to the newest 12,000-seat entertainment complex going in on the Strip.
“If you look at the comps, this golf course sits on a billion-dollar piece of property,” said Brian Hawthorne, executive director of golf operations. “But the operation has been amazingly well received.”
The new course, which is owned by the Wynn Las Vegas resort and casino, opened on Oct. 11. It was designed by Tom Fazio, who put a lot of love and attention into making this one worthy of the property on which it sits.
“It was such a great environment and a great setting,” Fazio said of the old Desert Inn Golf and Country Club. “And personally for me, some of the great memories in creating it, because I go back to in my career, my uncle (George Fazio) was a tournament golfer in the Ben Hogan and Sam Snead era. So all those players that played on that original golf course on that property, the old Desert Inn, I knew many of them personally. Although I was a youngster, I knew them.”
Even though the golf course is new (and a great test), you still get a sense of that history as you walk through the casino, past a few restaurants and into the golf shop where pictures of Snead and Hope and Nicklaus in his sideburns-and-Sansabelts prime hang on the walls.
“I’m sure there were people who remember the old Desert Inn, remember the old buildings inside and the old casinos and the hallways and lobbies and kind of had some feelings of nostalgia,” Fazio said. “They liked it and they felt good. Now when you walk into the Wynn Las Vegas, it’s like one of the most fabulous, spectacular, dramatic, wonderful environments as a facility, as a building, as a hotel.
“Well, obviously the golf course had to measure up. The old Desert Inn golf course was based on an era when it was built in the ’50s, how it was built, very low profile, flat on the ground. The design elements used to create strength and create some challenge were to plant trees and narrow the corridors. That’s what golf design was.
“With the creation of the Wynn golf course, the idea was to incorporate not only the challenge from vegetation but also relief and contour and framing and definition and also some excitement in the terrain. So we went from being a flat, narrow golf course to being a rolling, elevated, framed kind of course. So that was really the overall process, a totally different environment. The same with the new Wynn hotel, it’s a totally different environment than the old Desert Inn.”
The same with Las Vegas, itself. There are very few places in town where you feel like Sammy Davis Jr. is going to walk out in a tux snapping his fingers. The city has changed. And the golf landscape has changed with it.
There’s a waterfall behind the 18th green at the Wynn Golf Club, a big one. There’s also a hefty price tag if you want to play – $550 before tip with a cart and a forecaddie. But as Hawthorne said, “When you consider that when people play golf, we’re keeping them out of the casino for four to four-and-a-half hours, we’re probably saving them money.”
And just like that you remember that some things in Vegas never change.
No. 18 – complete with a waterfall – at Wynn Golf Club. Photo: Courtesy of Wynn Golf Club
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